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Energy Conferees Haggle Over Hydro Relicensing Reforms

by CBB Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - September 27, 2002

Senate energy bill negotiators this week proposed federal hydropower relicensing reforms that environmental groups charged would favor utilities at the expense of fish.

During a House-Senate conference committee meeting on the energy bill Wednesday, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, narrowly won a voice vote among Senate negotiators to offer the Senate-passed reforms to House negotiators. Several Democratic senators, including Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, voted no.

House Energy Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., said House members would study the Senate proposal and noted that hydropower licensing was one of several "thorny issues" remaining to be settled in the conference committee. In fact, moments later, Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who brokered a consensus House hydro licensing provision between environmentalists and the utility industry, repeated his opposition to the Senate plan.

The House-Senate conference committee, which is chaired by Tauzin, has been meeting almost daily since last week to try to resolve differences between the two chambers in order to pass a final energy bill before Congress recesses next month for the election.

The bill is a priority of President George W. Bush. Also on Wednesday at the White House, a group of conference leaders and members met with Bush to discuss various issues, including his plan to open part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. But other Democratic senators publicly renewed their opposition to any drilling in the Alaskan home for wild caribou and other native species.

If Congress changes hydropower licensing, it will affect the environmental impacts and power generation of hundreds of non-federally owned dams whose 30-to-50-year licenses are scheduled to expire over the next 10 years. Those include dozens of major Northwest dams, such as Idaho Power Co.'s Hells Canyon complex.

"We're very concerned," Trout Unlimited Vice President Steve Moyer said Thursday. "For salmon and trout, it's probably the most important part of the energy bill conference."

Moyer said his and other conservation groups oppose the Senate provision and reluctantly agreed to Dingell's House compromise. "We didn't think we needed to go as far as the House, but we went along," he said. "It was agreed to by industry, conservationists and House members of both parties. And then the industry went and successfully got more and overreached in the Senate. We're trying very hard to stop it."

Utilities and developers complain the current relicensing process can take years, is expensive and often results in the imposition of burdensome new fish passage and other environmental requirements that can make projects uneconomic and reduce electricity generation.

The Senate reform package was developed by Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., Craig and Gordon Smith, R-Ore., and supported by the National Hydropower Association. It was adopted as an amendment to the energy bill in April after the Senate voted 54-43 to reject a Democratic alternative that would have substituted a study of the issue. The House passed its version last year.

Moyer said it would make it easier for dam owners and developers to weaken new fish-passage, streamflow and other requirements imposed by federal fish, wildlife and land management agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service, as part of the relicensing process. Currently, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission includes these as mandatory conditions for a new license.

"We're often trying to right wrongs done by dams over long periods of time. That's what law says needs to be done," he said.

Under the Senate changes to the Federal Power Act, utilities and FERC could dominate the other agencies, as well as the conservation groups that often intervene in relicensing cases, and set conditions that won't be sufficient to sustain fish, Moyer said.

The power act's requirements are "among best environmental laws we have to make sure fish can pass dams" and to make sure hydropower facilities comply with federal land management plans, he said.

Moyer said his group also would oppose a compromise between the House and Senate if it weakened the House provision.

Crucial differences between the two relicensing reform packages revolve around their environmental standards and what rights they grant to outside parties to participate in the process of developing new mandatory conditions.

The House compromise gave dam owners the right to offer alternative conditions to those proposed by federal agencies and to have them accepted by those agencies if they were equally protective at less cost. But it also gave environmental groups the same right to offer alternatives. Under the Senate provision, only license applicants could do so.

Also, the House would require alternative condition proposals to be "no less protective," while the Senate's standard is "adequate protection and utilization."

In a written statement Wednesday, Craig said he was concerned that in practice, the House approach "would not provide as meaningful an improvement to the process." On the other hand, the Senate's language would give a departmental secretary of a federal resource agency greater discretion in determining whether to accept alternative conditions as long as they meet the agency's existing statutory requirements for environmental protection, he said.

"For hydro generators, this could very well spell the difference between acceptance and rejection of an environmentally protective, energy saving alternative," Craig said. The House would create "a new, entirely arbitrary standard to be set on a case-by-case basis by agency personnel exercising delegated authority."

In April, Dingell criticized senators for adopting a scheme that would "roll back existing protections for fish, wildlife, habitat and water quality." Dingell vowed that the "power grab by the hydro industry will not stand."

The House compromise would require federal resource agencies to give due consideration to alternative conditions that may cost less to implement or produce more energy as long as they provided greater or no less environmental protection, he said.

Dingell said the House provision was supported by the National Hydropower Association, American Public Power Association, and the Edison Electric Institute as well as environmental groups, including American Rivers, Trout Unlimited and the Hydropower Reform Coalition.

CBB Staff
Energy Conferees Haggle Over Hydro Relicensing Reforms
Columbia Basin Bulletin, September 27, 2002

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